US Education Policy

State Efforts to Improve Failing Schools Must Address Opportunity Gaps

April 26, 2023  • Sara Heyburn Morrison

Let’s face it, school improvement needs a makeover. It’s not enough to identify schools badly in need of change. We need to help them get better. In Tennessee, a new education funding law is helping us do this. But it won’t have the effect we want unless we approach our collective efforts through an opportunity-to-learn framework.

The state’s lowest-performing schools will get additional funding under the law, but will also be required to participate in a state review process and  public hearings before the state board of education. These hearings will provide a chance to examine the connection between opportunities and outcomes, through an opportunity-to-learn lens. Instead of just asking school and district leaders for a financial and academic analysis to better understand why student achievement is low(as has historically been the practice) we’ll broaden our questions. With the information we glean from the hearings, we’ll work with state and local partners to make meaningful changes at the school level that lead to better opportunities and outcomes.

Running the old school improvement playbook hasn’t worked well for enough students. We need an opportunity-to-learn approach that seeks to understand if and how schools are providing all students with what they need to succeed. So, we might ask about school culture and climate, which impacts student achievement and well-being. Similarly, we’ll ask about family engagement, extracurricular activities, and whether students are accessing rigorous content aligned to college and career expectations. My colleagues and I are having conversations with stakeholders to think about framing, process, and how to support leaders in identifying opportunity gaps; all conversations that will improve our understanding of the issues and our oversight.

Unlike a lot of state initiatives, we have a long onramp to get this right. Our first hearings are several years away. This gives us time to study the research, engage experts and stakeholders, and develop effective processes and tools. We will work closely with school and district leaders. There should be no surprises when we get to the hearings. This is not a game of “gotcha.” 

It’s also vital to take this work into local communities. While the state board will facilitate the hearings, they should take place in the communities where the schools are located. Families should be able to attend, learn, and advocate for change along with us.

Furthermore, we absolutely must involve educators and students in this work. They know better than anyone what works and what is broken. We will listen with interest to what they think it will take to ensure all students have opportunities to learn at high levels. Do teachers need more planning time? Better, more targeted professional learning? Are instructional materials relevant and engaging? What clubs and activities would motivate students and build school spirit? We won’t know if we’re not in direct conversation.

As we think about school improvement and helping students coming out of the pandemic, we have to find ways to give those who need it more instructional time. In our state, like others, we’ve been trying to serve more students with high-quality summer programs and high-dosage tutoring. There is evidence this is having a positive impact. In Tennessee, summer learning camps led to math and reading gains last summer. Nearly 100,000 kids participated. In addition, a recent study by NWEA found achievement levels across the country didn’t dip as much as they normally would in a typical summer this past year, a sign the emphasis on summer learning is working.

We’ve taken steps in Tennessee to ensure these programs are engaging and have high attendance rates. Students need opportunities to participate in hands-on learning and the arts—opportunities not always equitably available. A RAND Corporation study found that high attendance is a critical factor for summer learning programs. That requires making programs both accessible and fun.

This is personal. I’m a policymaker but also a mom to three children under five. My oldest, Roscoe, loves his pre-school. He’s learning about vermiculture and composting, regularly participates in music, art, outdoor education, and is developing reading and math skills. It is no surprise that he finds great purpose and joy in going to school every day. I want that spark to burn brightly and continuously throughout his school years. As state leaders, we must ensure we do everything we can to make that true for all children.

Sara Heyburn Morrison
Executive Director, Tennessee State Board of Education